Monday, April 19, 2010


An artist comes to his life by many experiences, and these become the imprint of how his art will define not only his visual ideas, but his approach to the world from which these experiences are derived. Will Holub takes gladly from the world -- its spiritual energy, its vital human relationships, and its natural beauty. In a career that has evolved with intent of focus, and with a mind attuned to creative essences, he has created a body of work that is luxuriously ruminative, filled with thought and intelligence – work which is defined by technical acuity and intuition, but never academic mordancy. His life illumines the work, and that ethic of work -- hard work -- and attention to developing his artistic identity, is an integral part of what he understands it means to contribute back to us as an artist. His range of subjects span from the familiar to what is innately experimental; narrative and story have always held a place for him, but he recreates the world's objects with a stunning attention to their creative potential for reinvention and reconstruction. In Holub's works, depiction is seldom the final estate of his visual ideas; instead, his images ask us to consider something that is deeper than what we think we know of objects: he brings us to the point of understanding emotional and spiritual equivalents that are present in every stroke, gesture, and decision he makes on the willing surface.

His works are, at their core, inspired by loving. I feel there is no other way to put it. By doing the work of love, his art is able to retain the necessary patience, focus, and commitment which enables his ideas to take shape in color, composition, and formal language. This is art of attention to its process, and attention to the surprises of its results. Spanning years in various travels and cities, Holub absorbed the best of what each could give him: New York's dynamic freedom of expression; New Mexico's pure landscape -- with each progression as an artist, Holub continued to develop his singular vision.

Collage has been his mainstay, and his use of the medium is startling, and invigorating. One would think there were limits on a square, and yet Holub completely shows us the infinite beauties to be found in this one aspect of geometry. With often painstaking application, these pieces draw us in and make us look, hour upon hour; we find point after point of connection and still are not sated. Surfaces shine with meaning; color becomes object; placement becomes purpose. The world that Holub defines is self-referential only to the extent that any artist must begin with their own stories. What we are welcomed into is a chance to see how these stories reflect our own.

For Holub, art is not just about the making of art; it is about the writing of art, the speaking of art, and the sharing of art. He understands that art proffers knowledge, and that nothing learned can be held; it must all be given away. This is the work that is to be done: let art be made, and let it be known. He does both with consummate respect for the many ways the world inhabits his hand.

When and how did you first come to art? Was there a single experience, or a culmination of innate visual sensibilities?  
My father was born in Wisconsin in 1918, the son of Polish immigrants who came to the United States over one hundred years ago.  They worked hard to educate their seven children and instilled in them a respect for art and culture that I haven’t found in most Americans.  My father recognized my artistic talent early on and encouraged me to develop it.  After all, in his parents’ European worldview, an artist in the family represented a true flowering of the line.  I sensed that art making was a viable career when you had real talent, so I never doubted myself.

When I was a kid growing up in Dayton, OH in the 1950s, I began to draw before I could write.   It was the most natural thing in the world for me.  Fortunately, my father took a job in New York City in 1960 and moved his wife and five children to Summit, NJ, a commuter suburb.  There was a local art center there (which eventually became the New Jersey Center for Visual Art) with some excellent instructors.  I took classes there for 5 years, eventually becoming an assistant instructor at the age of 14.  Even more important was New York City.  To me, it was the ultimate, magical and peerless.  I began visiting museums like the Frick, Modern, Guggenheim and Metropolitan and learned to what heights of accomplishment a serious artist could aspire. It was suddenly a Technicolor world.  I remember standing on the 2nd floor landing of the stairwell in the old Museum of Modern Art building – not even ten years old – and seeing Picasso’s “Guernica” at the entrance to paintings galleries.  It was a moment of revelation.  Renaissance art, I had been taught, represented the zenith of aesthetic accomplishment.  Suddenly, I understood that art could be like a sock in the jaw and all I wanted to do after that was one day live in New York and be able to do that, too. 

What were some of your first subjects? Where did they lead you in your development?
Growing up, I drew and painted my siblings and friends.  By age 9 I was studying oil painting techniques and branched out into still lifes and landscapes, those mainstays of regional American art.  Drawing and painting were hard work for me, but I was left alone when I did – which is a big deal in a large family.   As the sculptor David Smith said, art is a luxury for which the artist pays.  When I was just starting out in New York in the 70s, my first large works were “big heads,” large-scale portraits based on photos I took of my friends.  Those paintings led to commissions, which are the very devil. John Singer Sargent was right when he said that a portrait is a painting where there’s something wrong with the mouth; people I’ve painted have actually said that.  So now I’ll only paint dead people; they’re much more forgiving. 

I didn’t think much about landscapes again until I got to New Mexico in the 1990s.  It is a vast place defined by the land, sky and lack of water.  Unplanned, my textural abstractions began to include references to it, both in color, image and process, just like my current Thames River paintings do today. 

How does your spiritual life inhabit your art and the processes of its making?
I rarely even consider the connection now.  Living a compassionate life based on integrity is what I expect of myself.  The art I make is always inspired by what feels good to me at the time; otherwise, I lose interest.  As Krishnamurti said, “Truth is a pathless land.”  If anything, it is simple non-judgmental awareness that leads me forward most reliably in art and life.

What is the story behind the wonderful, evocative "Lucky Strike" WWII portraits? What is/was your relation to any of the men in the photographs from which the portraits were inspired?
My father was a WWII Army Air Corps navigator.  He flew 31 missions over Europe and survived, which was miraculous given the huge number of fliers who didn’t.  When he was being trained in San Marcos, TX almost 70 years ago, the Army photographed all the navigator candidates – who were among the best-educated groups in the armed forces then -- and had them printed in a format resembling a school yearbook.  Along with his medals and discharge papers, it was the only reminder of those days that he preserved.  When my parents moved out of their home to go to a retirement community in 2007, my brother Mark was helping them and discovered the book and sent it to me when I was artist-in-residence at an artists’ colony down south.  However, it wasn’t until a year later, in 2008, that I decided to paint some of them in a refined illustrational style, knowing as I made them that they’d take on a life of their own.  Curators have responded very positively to them, too; Jen Mergel of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston gave an award to one of them at the Cambridge Art Association in 2008, and Liza Statton of Artspace in New Haven will be showing the full series in my first solo show there later this year.  On a personal level, painting those men drew me into my father’s life so powerfully that I realized I wanted to go to Connecticut to take care of him, which was the best thing I’ve ever done.  

The portraits of these men remind me that we are still sending men off to war. Your portraits however have such a sense of openness in their expressions: they are posing for viewers they may never know, and the viewer does not fully know their history. When I look at them I want to know whether they survived their wars.
Sherman Zeldes lived into his 80s back in Detroit.  I don’t know what happened to the others, but have always thought that people would come forward with information as the paintings are exhibited regularly.  I’d sometimes get a feeling when I was painting them as to whether they had survived or not.  It was the way they developed and emerged on the canvas surface; some were literally more ethereal than the ones that seemed to physically present themselves.  It was humbling.

Your work has a wide range, from the narrative to the abstract; what inspires you to work in either? When do you choose one over the other to express a visual idea and why?
I rarely work in different styles at the same time.  My representational/figurative work is almost always photo-based and employs techniques I began to develop during the 1970s while in college and later at the School of Visual Arts, where I studied illustration.  I experimented with gestural abstraction and automatic drawing in the early 1980s, until I settled on collage and assemblage as my preferred non-figurative style.  Supporting my 
inclination towards diversity was my work at the Metropolitan Opera, where I supervised receptions and dinners for the donors and benefactors in the late 1980s.  Almost everything took place pre-performance and the ushers let me watch the operas from the back of the Grand Tier.  Seeing different multi-million dollar productions night after night, presented in often vastly different visual styles, encouraged me to go back and forth between the representational and the abstract on a regular basis.  At the end of the day, I feel fortunate to have diverse skills and like to exercise them regularly.

 New York and Santa Fe have been integral places of your development as an artist. Can you describe how each changed your visual and/or personal ideas, progression and growth as an artist?
I had the great good fortune to live in New York City for 17 years. Back when I moved into my first SoHo 
apartment in 1975, rents were cheap, the city’s infrastructure was terribly distressed, there were citywide blackouts and I loved it. My ability to make refined figurative and representational paintings at the start of my professional life in New York brought me sales and a collector base.  I also went to the theater and movies constantly, and never missed a major museum or gallery exhibition.  That was an education valuable beyond measure.  On most Saturdays I went gallery hopping in SoHo – Leo Castelli, Mary Boone, Paula Cooper, Metro Pictures, Sonnabend were just around the corner from my Sullivan Street studio.  It was still an Italian neighborhood in those days, where the dons sipped espresso in front of the social club across the street, while elderly women dressed in black sat in folding chairs in front of the tenement buildings.  The light from those tall, western-facing windows in my Sullivan Street apartment and studio on the fifth floor was perfect; I didn’t even use artificial light in those days. I also began to think more ambitiously and painted large scale  representational works well into the 1980s.  One night in 1977 I was out with friends when we heard about a new club that had just opened called Studio 54.  I went that same night and regularly after that; it was the epicenter of the party we hoped would never end. 

Then the AIDS crisis hit.  There is no way I can accurately describe what happened during those painful years.  Luckily, by the mid-1980s, I was able to use my first exhibitions in the East Village to bear witness to the stories of some of the people who were most affected.  Those paintings helped me handle the trauma of the period, which felt like a war.  When I remember those that didn’t survive, I mourn not only their deaths but also the very real consequences of almost an entire generation of mentors being lost.  Art of every kind has been poorer as a result ever since.  Although discontent, I remained in New York until the early 90s, mainly because I got an interesting day-job at the United Nations and became very active in a Buddhist organization.  After visiting Santa Fe while on a vacation, I realized that I could live there and within 9 months I had moved. I spent my first years in New Mexico hiking in the mountains, exploring the state and studying its history.  I really liked the Wild West zeitgeist that supported my entrepreneurial re-invention, and worked very hard to establish myself as a community-minded visual artist.  At the invitation of Tom Aageson, Executive Director of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, I eventually served on the steering committee that conceived and established the arts advocacy non-profit we named Creative Santa Fe.  I am very grateful to all the gallerists, collectors, curators and critics who embraced my work over the 14 years I lived there, but by 2006, I wanted to live again in a large population center.  So early one morning four years ago I drove down to Albuquerque, turned left onto I-40 and eventually ended up back on the east coast. 

How did you come to collage as a medium of choice? Your explorations in it are pristine and exacting, yet filled with emotional suggestions, pictorial references, and an acute sense of order. Yet within this order you take flight and expand ideas in a very random way that has marvelous juxtapositions of imagery, word, and idea.
I came to it by luck and never looked back.  I began making my first process-oriented works in the mid-1980s, obsessively gluing thousands of paper fragments, mandala-like, to stretched canvases.  Without knowing it at the time, I was training my mind through repetition, similar to eastern mantra practices, and feeling much better about everything as a result.  Curiously, it was not until the end of the 80s that I adopted an actual Buddhist mantra practice.  It seems that art led me to it, instead of the other way around.  Score one for the home team, eh?  Once I got to Santa Fe in 1992, I painted representationally again for a couple of years, before going back to the textural work, which sold very well in the galleries there.  

How did the "Thames" pieces come about? They are a wonderful suite of collages, and have such different interations of visual ideas. 

When I moved to the southeastern Connecticut shoreline in 2008 to help my father at the end of his life, I rented a nearby apartment overlooking the Thames River, which flows into Long Island Sound.  I had just finished my World War II Army Air Force veteran paintings, and was putting all my energy into care giving. After he died in early 2009, I was applying for a Gottlieb Foundation grant and decided to send them a 25-year retrospective survey of my textural abstractions, which had to include my most recent work.  Since that had been figurative, I set to work making mixed media pieces whose horizontal bands of tonalities and colors subtly evoke the movement of the river – and the play of light upon and above it – that I watch constantly.  

 You've shown extensively in a wide range of galleries. Can you discuss some of the rewards, as well as the pitfalls, of representation.
Having a trustworthy art dealer who genuinely values your work and acts as your advocate in a professionally run art gallery is a huge advantage.  Living close enough to drop in regularly is also helpful. Trust and respect are as important in an artist’s relationship with a gallery as they are in any partnership.  Last spring I had a solo show at the non-profit Hygienic Galleries in New London, CT.  They allowed me to curate and install the show, which featured pairings of figurative and abstract paintings from my New York City and Santa Fe years, and I was completely satisfied with the way my work was presented.  Artists profit from a more active role in directing how their work is shown, when and if the gallery permits it.   That said, receiving checks from your galleries on a monthly basis is a very civilized way to earn your living.

Your paintings for Tiffany's windows were a beautiful and quirky complement to the glass pieces exhibited. Gene Moore was a remarkably creative artist who changed the whole realm of retail display with visual art. What was that experience like? How did you come to your images for these windows?

Gene Moore became my friend and mentor beginning in the late 1970s.  The theater artist Hugh Sherrer, who took me under his wing when I first arrived in New York, introduced us.  Gene was the Director of Display at Tiffany & Co. and would lend me books from his personal library, which we would use as jumping off points for long discussions over lunch.  I would pick him up at his office in the Fifth Avenue Tiffany building, often bringing my newest work to get his feedback.  One afternoon when I was there, Jacqueline Onassis stopped in unexpectedly just to wish him well. Gene explained to me later that he had designed decorations for a dinner party she and President Kennedy gave at Mount Vernon 20 years before.  And that was the kind of man he was – talented, smart, strong, generous, kind – and unforgettable. 

In 1986, Gene asked me to exhibit my artwork in his fabled windows on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.  Think of the opening credits of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” with Audrey Hepburn in that beautiful black Givenchy evening gown, eating a Danish and gazing contentedly at Gene’s window installations.  It was surreal.  I already knew that decades earlier, Gene had hired Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns before they were famous to create window displays together and he gave Andy Warhol display work even before that.  Naturally, I felt honored and decided to do a series of paintings that would pay homage to the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp.  I painted a series of venti-ducts – those wind-activated metal caps atop ventilation shafts you see on rooftops in older New York neighborhoods.  Gene worked his magic and chose Tiffany crystal candlesticks, vases and decanters that amplified the compositional rhythms of the paintings.  I’ll never forget seeing them for the first time on a cold January night and how pleased and grateful I was.  When I learned recently that Jeff Koons employs 100 artists as assistants in his studio, I was reminded of Gene’s lifelong commitment to helping artists and how that spirit of generosity is still alive today. 

Your collage work is the most extensive source of materials and ideas that you continue to explore. Why is this medium so rich in ideas for you?

Marking paper, tearing paper, gluing paper, rubbing paper – that’s what I love about it.  The ideas present themselves differently than in representational pieces, in that there is less planning and more reaction in each moment of a work’s making.  Merce Cunningham and John Cage used to collaborate on dance performances wherein the music and choreography were created independently; they only agreed upon the time duration of each piece.  That was a very inspiring notion to me when I first started working with collage.  

Instead of perfecting a craft leading to similar art-objects, an artist could include the unplanned and spontaneous, as Eva Hesse did in the 1960s when she deliberately allowed the failure of her materials to become integral to her art.  Kurt Schwitters's collages, as presented in a retrospective at MoMA back in the 80s, were also tremendously exciting and, like in Rauschenberg’s combines, I began to understand that the identification with the physical acts that create tactile works elicit a sensual connection that supports and amplifies the visual one.  

The remarkable 2000 installation "An Unreasonable Course of Action, Reasonably Pursued", at Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Art was essentially mandala-like in its creation. And, as such spoke to transition and the fragility of temporality. It was also a "performance" piece. How did the viewing public see this work, and how did they engage with you during the exhibition?

People who stopped to look at the work in progress were always respectful.  Because it was a labor of love, the atmosphere in which I worked seemed to be protected from negativity.  I created a “visitors’” piece that was a fraction of the size of the large one I was making.  I drew a grid of pale grey on a dark gray wall opposite the 8 x 10 ft. piece I was making and invited the curious to take handfuls of photo paper fragments – there were over 10,000 after all – and glue them into place.  Groups of school children and college students were brought into the gallery to observe the work in progress and question me about it.  Given that the piece was going to be destroyed by me soon after it’s completion, my definition of art and its function radically changed.  I felt truly free and part of a process that had a life of its own.   

Your portraiture and figure work are often surreal -yet in works such as "I Am A Catholic", you bring this sense of the surreal to an almost comic and ironic level. It is a family group portrait with compelling resonance. How did it begin?  
was really hitting my stride with my figurative paintings in the early 80s when I made “I Am a Catholic.”  At the time, I was taking a hard look at my past and working through the sadness by painting what I was discovering.  Despite its title, the painting was actually meant to address addictive behavior and the manic, sugar-fueled mood swings my siblings and I endured while living together as children. 

Where are you now and what are you exploring for visual ideas and new work in the time ahead of you?
Coming home to the east coast has been great.  I feel good here.  When you live in a populous region, smart people are easier to find.  So I just keep looking out the terrace doors of my studio every day.  Submarines regularly go up and down the Thames River, which becomes a broad deep estuary flowing into Long Island Sound after it passes between New London and Groton.  I’ve never lived in a military town until now, unless you count Santa Fe, which is an art center to a large extent because of its proximity to the nuclear weapons makers in Los Alamos, which is, per capita, one of the wealthiest communities in America.  Last spring, my friend Ken Gilchrist rented a truck and drove all my unsold paintings, drawings and photographs from New Mexico to Connecticut, which has made it possible for me to explore the idea of re-cycling some of the art I’ve already made into new pieces.  

In today's art community, there is much more 
separation and isolation -- yet in the 40s and 50s it was rich with conversation and many artists spoke with each other on a regular basis. What is your experience of this? Where do you see the current art market?
When I lived in New York during the 1980s, I was friendly with quite a few working artists.  That’s where I met Paul Pinkman, who has remained a good friend and colleague to this day.  We all partied together, looked at each other’s work, went to each other’s shows, mostly in the East Village galleries, and genuinely enjoyed what was happening.   When the economy took a nosedive in the 1987 and the East Village scene radically contracted, most of us drifted apart and within a couple of years I decided to move to Santa Fe.   It was there that I had my most sustained commercial success, which isolated me from many artists who weren’t selling well.  I did enjoy working with curators and artists like Franky Kong and Mary Bennett, who contributed tremendously to the community. Showing now mainly in non-profits here on the east coast, I’ve been impressed by how friendly the arts community can be.  However, most of the artists I’ve met aren’t selling their work, which creates all kinds of problems for them.  The best thing about the downturn has been the return of the creative freedom artists are able to embrace when there is nothing left to lose.

Who are the art writers that you read? What do you think of the state of art criticism today? How does it help or hurt the medium?
One of my favorite arts writers is Calvin Tomkins, whose “Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg” and “The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant Garde” are seminal works.  Another great writer is Dave Hickey: he’s a prophet and a herald.  Most of the regular arts criticism I read is in the New York Times and the New Yorker, where I also follow their coverage of movies, opera, dance and theater.  For my money, Manohla Dargis is teaching us all how to see again.  Holland Cotter is amazingly compassionate.  Peter ScheldahI actually tells the Truth.  Anthony Lane makes me laugh.  And Roberta Smith is fighting to change the art world. They and their colleagues all do an admirable job elegantly describing what they see and rising to the challenge of finding value in the ideas that the arts are – or are not -- exploring right now, which is clearly not easy.  Whether they influence anyone anymore is an open question, but at their best they all brilliantly wed pure observation to delight.
Of course, the creation and vitality of online forums like this one are enormous gifts to those who read them.  The networks they’re helping to build will be essential components in the evolution of the art world, creating new ways for artists to prosper in the global marketplace. I can easily see a time when artists will finally move beyond ideas alone and create a cultural renaissance fueled by the expansion of pure consciousness.  It’s up to us, and there is much work to be done. 

All images copyright Will Holub, 2010. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist. For more information about the works here, and other works by Will Holub, visit his website at 

Top to bottom: "Thames Mauve", 2010; "Shield #33", 1988; "Gertrude", 2008; "Green Face", 1986; "Sherman Zeldes, Detroit, MI", (from the Lucky Strikes series of WWII Veterans portraits), 2008; "All of Us", 1999; 'Day Four", 2005; "Thames Grant", 2009; Tiffany window design by Gene Moore, with "Abstract Ventiduct", 1986; "Under Sixty", 2009; "Gould", 2009; installation view of "An Unreasonable Course of Action, Reasonably Taken", 2000, photo by John Hunt; "Chu #22", 2001; "Mother", 1999; "Canyon", 2005.